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...over-educated and under-experienced, or so they say...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Take A Chance On Me

My decision to leave academics and cross over into corporate America was one based on financial necessity. I loved teaching, but to successfully get where I needed to go in the academic world required a PhD and, as a single parent, I was running out of time and money. I had spent a couple years as what they call a Freeway Flyer -- picking up classes here and there, contracted per semester, and paid per class. There was no benefit package and no job security. I was constantly worried and worn out. I knew I needed something more stable and so I went looking for it.

As an English Major, it made sense to find a job that required strong writing skills. I applied for advertising positions, technical writing positions, research positions, PR positions... you name it. Anything that said "good verbal communications" had my resume all over it. I always made it to the interview, but somewhere in the conversation the interviewer would say something like, "Master's degree in 19th Century Literature?" followed by, "Well, to be honest, I think you have too much education and not enough experience."

During that time, being the broke person that I was, I had taken out a payday loan that I was paying on regularly (for months...). As December drew near and the semester came to an end, I noticed a help wanted sign in the window of the Payday Loan shop. Knowing that I wouldn't get paid again until sometime in January and having made friends with the manager of the shop, I figured I had a fair chance at picking up some part-time work there, even if I was "over educated." The lady was more than happy to take my application. During the interview, much to my surprise, she said, "Master's Degree? You have a Master's Degree?" The next thing I knew they were offering me a full-time position as a manager with full benefits. Stunned, I told her I needed to think about it.

I went home that night and sat in a dark room feeling a significant blow to my ego. If I were to take the job I would go from Pandora The Professor to Pandora The Payday Loan Manager. When people asked me what I did for a living, I would no longer see their eyes grow wide after I said I taught English at the University; instead I would watch them cringe and feel they needed to take a shower when I told them I was a loan shark. But... a stable income with health insurance attached to it made more sense when looking at my little girl than not knowing if I would have enough classes to pay my way through life next month. Oddly enough, I got a phone call that night from the dean who informed me two of my upcoming classes had been dropped and one had been given away to a tenure track professor because she had lost a class due to low enrollment. That meant I would have one class to teach that semester, which also meant a mere $3,000 to stretch out over a three month span. At that point I sucked it up, told my ego I didn't have time for it, and took a job as manager of a payday loan.

Oh the irony of it all... I had all this crazy education that, from my perspective, big companies would've reaped great benefit from, but the only company smart enough to see my over educated self as an asset was the stupid Payday Loan that required a minimum of a high school diploma. They did benefit from it though. They stuck me in the middle of the ghetto in a shop that was dying and falling apart from lack of business, and in six months time I turned that thing into the biggest money making branch in the district.
(see Pandora's Payday Loan at http://www.dailyjuju.blogspot.com)

After about nine months in that hell hole, an acquaintance referred me to a mortgage company that was hiring. I went through three different interviews at that place. Each interviewer had an aversion to my education, but my time at the payday loan was my saving grace. The message that place conveyed on my resume was, "She wasn't too educated for us, she was one of the best loan sharks we ever had, and the girl means business." So... shady as that business was, I was thankful they took me in and gave me a chance because it opened the door for shady business number two to open the door and give me a chance.

I worked for a year at the mortgage company and was fairly successful, but just as things looked like they were on the up and up, the housing market crashed, all the lenders started closing their doors, and it wasn't long before I found myself unemployed. I had only been out of academia for a year and a half and, as I began interviewing for jobs again, I found, regardless of my time at the payday loan, I was still considered over educated and under experienced.

I spent three months unemployed. I had interviewed over and over and over and was rejected over and over and over. I had used up all of my savings and I was starting to panic because I knew I was sinking and about to drown. I was desperate and terrified. Finally a friend of mine called and told me to go to a contract agency and apply for a position as an administrative assistant he knew about. It only paid $11 an hour, but it was something and a foot in the door. So I went to the company and started filling out the application for the suggested position. As I answered the questions on the paperwork, I knew they were going to take one look at my resume and start laughing. There was no way around it. I was over educated and I knew it.

When I walked into the interview it was exactly as I anticipated; the guy took one look at my resume and said, "What are you doing in here?" So I gave him a brief synopsis of how I ended up there and said, "Obviously, I don't care how much I get paid. I just need a job. Surely you can find something for me, can't you?" He stared at my resume and said, "Well, I have one position that might work. It's only $16 an hour, and you're still over educated for it, but you have a good personality, I think they'll like you. If you play your cards right in the interview, you just might get the job. Let me make a couple calls and see if I can get you in." Two hours later, he called and told me I had an interview the next morning at 10:30.

When I pulled into the parking lot that morning I knew I had to keep my wits about me. I knew from all of my past interviews, despite all the pride I held in my education it somehow didn't work in my favor. I knew I had to say all the right things at all the right times, but more importantly I knew I had to somehow make it clear that my education was a strength, not a weakness.

When I walked into the office I was greeted by a tall man sporting a cowboy shirt, blue jeans, and a nice set of cowboy boots. He seemed rugged but personable and every bit as streetwise as he was business savvy. He was relaxed in the interview, which helped me relax, and everything seemed to be moving along very well until that moment he took a good hard look at my resume. I watched him stare at the page as he slowly sat back in his chair and said, "Master's degree in 19th Century Literature?" He leaned back and stroked his goatee and just as he opened his mouth to say, "Well..." I couldn't help it. My life flashed before me. It was do or die. I had nothing more to lose. So I piped in and said, "Wait. I know what you're going to say. You're getting ready to tell me that I'm over educated and under experienced for this job. I know this because they all say that. But before you make that statement, I would like an opportunity to explain something to you. I have a Master's degree in 19th Century Literature, yes. I know right now that if I had a Master's degree in Business Management I would've had a job yesterday. But I don't. And all that piece of paper really means to anyone is that we were smart enough to see the value in furthering our education and we were persistent enough to do it. The problem for me is that I was an English Major and no one sees value in that. But businesses need people who can think, and what business people don't understand about English Majors is this: all we do all day long is ask ourselves a question. And once we ask ourselves that question, we go out and find the answer to that question. And once we find the answer to that question, we come back, sit down, and not only tell you the answer to that question but convince you that answer is correct. And why corporate America doesn't see that as a valuable skill is beyond me."

After that, he smiled at me like a proud father smiles at the strength of his daughter and said, "Well... I guess we're all just a bunch of hill billies aren't we? All right then, Pandora. I'll give you the job. I know you're too smart for it and I don't expect you to stay in it for very long, but I'll take my chances and give it to you. It pays $16 an hour, but because of your education I'll pay you $19.50 an hour on one condition: You work hard for me. You show me that you can do everything you say you can do. And if you do that, when the time comes, I'll point you in the right direction."

I made good on my promise. I worked hard and if you spoke with him I'm sure he'd tell you that I went above and beyond the call of duty on more than one occasion. And nine months later, when the time came, he made good on his promise and he pointed me in the right direction. Ironically, or dare I say providentially, he pointed me in a direction where everything came together: my education, my experience in his department, my toes in the world of real estate, and even my time at the stupid payday loan pulled together in some beautiful way to make me the perfect candidate for the position I hold now. And I think of this and write this because I learned today that this man will retire next week. I think of this because I wouldn't be where I am right now if he hadn't believed in me. I think of this because I now hold a steady job with a solid income because one man took a chance on me.

...over educated and under experienced, or so they say...

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